Doctor Who: Thirteen’s a charm

Jodie Whittaker – the Thirteenth Doctor

Well, it was inevitable, and not that surprising – we have our first female Doctor Who: Jodie Whittaker is the Thirteenth Doctor. She’s best known for her role as Beth Latimer in new Who showrunner Chris Chibnall’s Broadchurch. And of course, the fuss it’s created is also unsurprising, unfortunately. For a TV series that thrives and built on change, there’s always resistance to change from some hardcore fans; casting a female in the part seems to be a step too far for many, prompting some to announce they’ll stop watching once Whittaker is on board.

Strangely enough, I have no opinion about the announcement. After being a passionate Doctor Who fan since 1980, all the way through the Wilderness years and a lover of 21st century Who, I find my enthusiasm over the last couple of years tempered slightly. I still follow it rabidly, but it hasn’t pushed my buttons as much recently. Is that outgoing showrunner Steven Moffat’s doing, I hear you ask?

Outgoing showrunner Steven Moffat

Not entirely. I’ve enjoyed a lot of Moffat’s Who, but I fear he has fallen victim to the same condition that Russell T Davies suffered from in his last year – a combination of fatigue, self-indulgence and an extended departure.

Of course, Davies did an amazing thing when he rebooted Doctor Who for the 21st century. It was fresh, exciting, captivating and became huge. During his time, he delivered some cracking episodes and story arcs that kept people watching. Moffat played a big part in that too, with stories like The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, The Girl in the Fireplace, Blink and Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, which is why it made sense for him to take over later on.

Davies really hit his stride in his fourth season in 2008; David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor and Catherine Tate’s Donna Noble were a fantastic TARDIS team, helped with some strong scripts and stories (we’ll just gloss over The Doctor’s Daughter, shall we?), and it made sense that Davies, executive producer Julie Gardner, producer Phil Collinson and Tennant should leave while still on top.

First 21st century showrunner Russell T Davies

It’s a shame then that Davies’ departure stretched out for almost 18 months, with five specials as something of a swansong. These specials, starting with the 2008 Christmas Special, The Next Doctor, and finishing with the two-parter, The End of Time, across Christmas 2009 and New Year’s Day 2010, weren’t particularly strong (The Waters of Mars was the best by far), and it felt like Davies was limping to the finish line. Then he gave us an indulgent wrap-up of his era as Tennant’s Doctor revisited all his friends and companions before he regenerated.

‘I don’t want to go!’

This extended coda to the story just didn’t have the emotional impact of previous season finales and felt cloying.

So Moffat, Matt Smith as the Eleventh Doctor and Karen Gillan as Amy offered a fresh start, and despite misgivings about Smith’s age, the Eleventh Doctor proved to be inspired casting. He continued, and indeed increased the energy and sense of fun that had made Tennant so popular, and for his first two seasons, was served with some strong episodes and complex story arcs, along with a few requisite weaker episodes and an unnecessary and, in hindsight, unsuccessful Dalek makeover. With the addition of Arthur Darvill as Rory, and the timey-wimey intrigue of River Song, this TARDIS team was formidable. Even broadcasting the sixth season in 2011 in two halves worked.

A formidable line-up for 2011

Splitting the seventh season over two years (2012 & 2013), however, didn’t do Doctor Who any favours, and this was the start, in some ways, of Moffat’s prolonged farewell, and a sign that he was overstaying his welcome.

Really? The Statue of Liberty was a Weeping Angel?

While the five 2012 episodes, the final ones to feature Amy and Rory, were relatively strong (we’ll excuse the Statue of Liberty as a Weeping Angel as a fun conceit), 2013’s stories, introducing Jenna Coleman’s Clara as the Impossible Girl companion, included some under-par stories: The Rings of Akhaten, Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS and Nightmare in Silver – please, Moffat, haven’t you realised yet that children in stories rarely work.

And all of this was a lead-up to the 50th anniversary special, The Day of the Doctor, which was a huge success, featuring the return of Tennant and Billie Piper (but not as Rose), the Zygons, and introducing John Hurt as the War Doctor. Oh, and there was the wonderful prequel which saw Paul McGann return as the Eighth Doctor and regenerate into the War Doctor. All great stuff.

Now that regeneration took hundreds of years!

The same can’t be said of Smith’s final episode, the 2013 Christmas Special, The Time of the Doctor. Seeing the Doctor spending hundreds of years on the planet Trenzalore defending a town called Christmas was a disappointment and not a worthy way for the Eleventh Doctor to end his time in the TARDIS. Clara, for the most part, was rendered impotent, especially now her Impossible Girl arc had been completed.

Still, there was now Peter Capaldi to look forward to as the Twelfth Doctor in 2014. His casting too provoked some negative responses – having had two young ‘sexy’ Doctors, some people thought casting an older man was a bad idea. But this was also another opportunity to demonstrate the show’s flexibility – as it has many times in the past.

Taking the Twelfth Doctor into a darker, more alien version of the character made sense with Capaldi’s seemingly dour disposition, and while keeping Clara around aimed to help the audience with the transition, it worked out the same way Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor clashed swords with his companion Peri (Nicola Bryant) in 1985 – neither made a particularly enjoyable TARDIS team.

Am I a good man? Well yes, just a bit spikey…

Along with a companion that had limited potential, despite Clara’s story arc with boyfriend Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson), Capaldi wasn’t blessed with strong stories in his first year. That’s not to say they were all bad – there were some strong stories like Mummy on the Orient Express, Flatline and Dark Water/Death in Heaven – but most of the eighth season stories were unmemorable or nonsensical. Robot of Sherwood, while a fun romp, was considered too ‘cartoony’, Kill the Moon’s reveal that the Moon was an egg waiting to hatch an alien being stretched credibility, even in Doctor Who, and In the Forest of the Night was let down by including children – again.

Ah, Missy, we love you!

Thank goodness then for Missy (Michelle Gomez) and the season’s two-part finale – although we could have done without the Cyber-Brigadier.

Capaldi’s second season in 2015 started strongly with the two-parter The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar, and a more relaxed Twelfth Doctor, the return of Missy, Davros and the Daleks. This year, most of the stories were two-parters, and included some of Capaldi’s best work (The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion and Heaven Sent) and the season’s climax was ostensibly the death of Clara. But the confusing and disappointing final episode, Hell Bent, saw Clara saved just before her death, and sent flying through Space and Time in an old-school TARDIS with Ashildr/Me (Maisie Williams), but wiped from the Doctor’s memory. It lacked the emotional impact of previous companions’ departures.

Clara and Me, off into a moment in Time

I can’t also help but wonder if the inconsistent broadcast scheduling of recent years has also had an impact on both ratings and Doctor Who’s following. For its first four years under Davies, each season would begin its 13-week run on Easter Saturday and finish in early/mid-July, just as summer kicks off in the UK. Since 2009 though, that consistency hasn’t been kept. Capaldi’s first two seasons both began in late summer/early autumn in the UK (not always a great time for prime time TV), and then, apart from the Christmas Special, there was no new Doctor Who in 2016. This can’t have helped by further interrupting the show’s momentum. It also meant the ‘ghost’ of Clara hung around longer than previous companions after their departure, even if we did get an introduction to new companion Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie) mid-2016.

Welcome to the TARDIS, Bill!

To be honest, the show needed Bill much earlier than 2017. She was the breath of fresh air that would have invigorated Moffat earlier and given Capaldi a different dynamic in the TARDIS to work with.

It’s Bill, but not as we knew her

Bill’s first few episodes earlier this year were strong and offered a different perspective on the Twelfth Doctor, but the blindness storyline and Monk trilogy didn’t quite deliver, and the season became less compelling. And then we got the two-part finale, World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls, which was jam-packed with big moments and returns: Bill being shot and converted into a Mondasian Cyberman, John Simm’s Master revealed and collaborating with his future self, Missy, Bill’s transformation into whatever Heather from The Pilot was, and a cliffhanger appearance of the First Doctor, leading into the upcoming Christmas Special, Twice Upon a Time.

The First Doctor features in the Twelfth Doctor’s final story

While all this is great, it feels a bit too ‘fanboy’ and indulgent – in the same way Davies’ finale did. It’s also too focused on the densely-packed continuity that Moffat has built up over the last seven years. Bill avoiding her fate was disappointing and reduced the impact of her Cyber-conversion – and is too similar to Clara’s departure. We’ve also seen that Bill will be returning in the Christmas Special, but she won’t be appearing alongside the Thirteenth Doctor.

 

Incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall

 

So, in 2018, Chris Chibnall will come in as the new showrunner for Doctor Who with a new broom and a new – female – Doctor. What else Chibnall will bring to the show remains to be revealed, but after his work on Torchwood and Broadchurch, it’ll be interesting to see.

 

Do I have an opinion about Whittaker yet? No, I’m going to wait and see. After all, change, for better or worse, is what has kept Doctor Who going all these years.

Where we’re at with queer TV

Beware: This blog does contain spoilers.

The representation of gay, lesbian and queer stories on television has evolved quite a bit in the last few years – thank goodness. It still has a fair way to go, according to many, but I thought I’d take a look at some of the queer shows and characters we’re watching these days. And they’re not all about pretty young people; the stories are much more diverse.

Thanks to the wonders of streaming TV, we’re getting to see some pretty good – and diverse – queer content. Netflix has the following:

Grace and Frankie: Jane Fonda (Grace) and Lily Tomlin (Frankie)play sixty-ish women whose husbands Robert (Martin Sheen) and Sol (Sam Waterson) have divorced them to marry each other after 20 years of an undercover affair. It’s a sitcom, of course, with Fonda playing an uptight ex-businesswoman and Tomlin playing a flaky hippy, but it deals with the issues that coming out later in life raise, for the wives, the husbands, and their children. It’s easy to watch, and like, but tells a story not often seen on TV.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Another sitcom, one that centres around Kimmy (Ellie Kemper), a girl rescued from an underground shelter where she’d been imprisoned by a doomsday cult leader for 15 years, and her efforts to come to terms with a very different world. She ends up sharing a New York flat with the ambitious but out-of-work actor Titus (Tituss Burgess), who is gay and black. It’s camp and silly and can be a little forced, but there’s enough sly humour to make it work. And Titus, while being an exaggerated stereotype, pokes fun and holes in the stereotype.

Orange is the New Black: This series, set, if you didn’t know, in a female prison, is four seasons in, and is not only full of strong performances and storylines, but, perhaps not surprisingly, features a whole range of queer characters, from trans-women to femme lesbians, butch lesbians, sometime-lesbians and every number on the Kinsey scale in between. And they’re all flawed, real characters who you love sometimes, and other times just want to slap.

London Spy: This British five-part series stars Ben Wishaw as Danny, a London gay man, who after a night out, has a chance encounter with a handsome man Joe (Edward Holcroft) jogging alongside the Thames – as you do. A whirlwind romance ensues, but Joe isn’t exactly who he says he is, and when he goes missing, Danny discovers he’s actually a spy. Also starring Jim Broadbent as Danny’s older gay friend Scottie, and Charlotte Rampling as Joe’s frosty mother, it’s a thriller where the characters’ sexuality is certainly part of the tale, but not the focus – thankfully.

Meanwhile, over on Stan:

Transparent: With three seasons now available, this show covers a lot of ground – in a very honest, uncensored and unfiltered way. It’s the story of Mort/Maura (Jeffrey Tambor), and older man who is transitioning from male to female, and how that affects his family. It’s an incredibly intelligent and complex exploration of sexuality and gender on a very personal level, and it does so with a remarkably neutral tone. It’s not preaching and not Queer Politics 101, but it offers a number of different opinions, experiences and responses from the very human characters. But it does treat transgender issues with respect, and that’s not something we’ve seen a lot of on television before.

UnREAL: Also on Stan, but SBS2 has broadcast the first season, this is a dark, dark mockumentary satire on reality TV, especially shows like The Bachelor. It’s not queer as such, but it does feature a gay producer, and one of the contestants in the first series comes out as a lesbian – quite prescient, given this year’s Australian series of The Bachelor saw two contestants fall in love with each other.

Elsewhere, via HBO, there’s Looking, with Andrew Haigh, who wrote and directed the wonder UK film, Weekend, as executive producer. It revolves around three close friends – all gay men – and their lives in San Francisco. Understated, and like Transparent, non-judgemental, it stars Jonathan Groff, Frankie J Alvarez and Murray Bartlett as the three friends, and features Russell Tovey and Scott Bakula, amongst others, as satellite characters and/or love interests. It ran for only two seasons, and a feature film in 2016 ties up all the loose ends, but it’s a shame that such an honest representation of gay lives on screen wasn’t given more room to breathe.

Closer to home, there’s not been much in the way of queer stories on commercial TV, biopics of peter Allen and Molly Meldrum aside. Even gay supporting characters have become thin on the ground in local drama, but SBS and the ABC have been more active.

Earlier this year, SBS broadcast the series Deep Water, a murder mystery set in Bondi about a series of murders of gay men that unearth unsolved murders from the ‘80s and ‘90s. Starring Noah Taylor and Yael Stone (Orange is the New Black) as police detectives Nick Manning and Tori Lustigman, the story is mostly told through Lustigman’s eyes, whose gay brother was murdered many years ago. An important story based on actual events, but there was some criticism that it was a ‘straight’ telling of a dark chapter in Sydney’s gay history.

The ABC has come to the party better dressed with a number of shows from Matchbox Pictures, headed by Michael McMahon and his partner Tony Ayres. Along with Glitch, an intriguing story of long-dead people climbing out of their graves in a country Victorian town – one of whom *Spoiler* is a young WWI soldier who’s gay, they also gave us Barracuda, based on the novel by Christos Tsiolkas.

It’s about Danny (Elias Anton), a working class teenager who wins a scholarship at an elite Melbourne private school because of his swimming prowess. Along with the difficulties involved in fitting in to such a smug and privileged social class, he’s also dealing with his emerging sexuality. So it’s a gay story told by a gay man and gay executive producers, and it aired in a primetime slot on ABC1. Being gay isn’t even a big part of the miniseries; it’s just one element, dealt with in an understated but effective way. And that’s a great step forward for Australian television.

Barracuda is not alone on the ABC. Josh Thomas and his series Please Like Me has just finished screening its fourth season on ABC1 – after previous seasons were broadcast on ABC2. In this latest season, Josh and his friends have had to grow up and become ‘adults’, and in doing so, the series itself has too.

While this continuing development and sophistication shows Thomas has grown as a writer and performer, one of the things that makes this series unique and refreshing is that it’s unapologetic and not issue-driven about Josh’s sexuality. His gay life, including family dynamics, friendships, relationships and sex life are presented frankly, but not milked for its sexuality. If anything, it’s more about mental health, and this is also expressed in a very matter-of-fact way. Even the surprising – and very moving – penultimate episode, where *Spoiler* Josh discovers his mother has taken her own life, is beautifully and sensitively understated.

Please Like Me celebrates gay life, but it also pokes fun at it, exposes its ugly aspects and recognises its sad times too, just like many other straight ensemble series have done. Being gay is not seen as something out of the ordinary, and really shows that Australian television has indeed come a long way. It, and the other shows included in this blog, just need to keep that momentum going.

Are Bastard Children Australian TV’s New Gay?

Thanks to Packed To The Rafters, Australian television is enjoying something of a domestic drama renaissance. This new breed of show centres around families and, depending in the show, a variety of extended family members and satellite characters. It makes a nice change from dramas set in police stations, hospitals and law practices, I must say, but with our TV screens inundated with so many dysfunctional – and entertaining – families, a new sub-trend, shall we say, has emerged.

It wasn’t so long ago that the inclusion of positive gay and lesbian characters in such shows was seen as progressive, but now that’s par for the course. Gay characters are so passé now. So, welcome to the screen a veritable bevy of unknown siblings, lost birth parents and traumatising progeny of pre-marital flings.

Coby Rafters

Thank goodness Coby got rid of that bogan hairstyle…

As you’d expect, the recently-finished Packed To The Rafters was the first out of the gate, with Dave (Erik Thompson) seeking out his birth parents Chel (Gillian Jones) and Tom (John Howard), and discovering a hitherto unknown set of unsavoury step-relatives, including the troublesome petty thief half-nephew Coby (Ryan Corr), who soon became part of the Rafters family unit, and underwent a character reformation (his art showed a softer side to the disaffected youth) and thankfully a style makeover, including a less-bogan hairstyle.

georgia flood

Teenage, pregnant and sulky. No wonder Phoebe had a character makeover.

House Husbands made it clear from the outset that Lewis (Gary Sweet) had an adult daughter Lucy (Anna McGahan) from his first marriage, but towards the end of the first season, he was joined by another daughter from a previous relationship, Phoebe (Georgia Flood), a pregnant, sulky runaway teen. Like Coby and the Rafters, she and her baby Gem were soon incorporated into Lewis’ home and family unit, and transformed into a much more likeable character.

 

Meanwhile, 60 years ago in A Place To Call Home, one of the many ‘scandalous’ secrets the Bligh family has been hiding has been recently revealed, and that’s the fact that George’s (Brett Climo) daughter, the thoroughly modern Anna (Abby Earl), who was pregnant to her secret Italian lover before a miscarriage, is actually his niece! Yes, on a trip to Sydney to consult her favourite aunt, Carolyn (Sara Wiseman), Anna discovers that she was the result of an unmarried affair, born overseas while Carolyn was travelling with George’s wife and brought home as their daughter. Of course, being a rather self-contained series, Anna’s real father isn’t just some random bloke Carolyn hooked up with, but someone very close to the Bligh family. Naturally. No one else in the family knows she knows yet, but when it hits the fan, it’ll give James’ gay lust for Harry a run for its money in the scandal stakes.

Anna Carolyn

To Anna’s complete surprise, she discovered that her favourite aunt was actually her mother. That explains a lot, she thought…

The Time of Our Lives is still in its early episodes, and so while no illegitimate children have been revealed yet, it may only be a matter of time. At least we have Luce’s (Shane Jacobson) oldest daughter Georgie (Elise MacDougall) from his first marriage to Maryanne (Anita Hegh) to act as half-sister to the younger twin girls and step-daughter to Bernadette (Justine Clarke). Maybe that’s enough steps and halves for the moment.

Phillip may not be a Proudman by name, but he's cetainly proud of his daughter, Nina.

Phillip may not be a Proudman by name, but he’s cetainly proud of his daughter, Nina.

Not too far removed from that in Offspring Land, Nina Proudman (Asher Keddie) leads a pretty complicated life as it is, but last year she discovered that Darcy (Jon Waters) wasn’t her real father at all, and that she was the result of a one-off fling between her mother Geraldine (Linda Cropper) and her doctor at the time, Phillip (Garry McDonald). She, of course, had to go and find him, and he is now back with Geraldine and an accepted and integrated member in the very messy Proudman family.

That awkward moment when the daughter you never knew you had meets the rest of your family...

That awkward moment when the daughter you never knew you had meets the rest of your family…

Winners & Losers is back for its third season, and starts off with Jenny Gross (Melissa Bergland) and her family – the wholesome, moral core of the show – dealing with the emergence of Sam (Katherine Hicks), a daughter that dad Brian (Francis Greenslade) didn’t even know about. No one’s dealing with it very well at all, to be honest, and as Brian tries hard to invite Sam into the family, son Patrick (Jack Pearson) isn’t having a bar of it, wife Trish (Denise Scott)is having trouble with the whole idea of it, and Jenny too is struggling to process this new information. And all of this is on top of Frances (Virginia Gay) finding her half-sister Jasmine (PiaGrace Moon), another recalcitrant teen whose bad behaviour has mellowed. Clearly it’ll only be a matter of time before Sam overcomes the Gross’ discomfort and becomes a part of the furniture, but not before the series writers milk it for all it’s worth.

Funny, isn’t it, that all the surprise children are all female, aside from Coby (who doesn’t really count, because he’s not a direct son of an established character). Is that because illegitimate daughters are easier to accept just because they’re female? It’s certainly a lot more convenient for scriptwriters to crank up the femininity and ‘softer’ side of these characters than it is to polish the rougher edges of spiky and unwanted male characters, and that opens up a whole new can of worms about the representation of male and female characters in Australian drama, but let’s not go there right now.

Of course, love children storylines aren’t new – soap operas have been using them for years, and apart from adding new dramatic subplots to these dramas, it also reflects the complicated family lives many Australians experience. Let’s just hope then that this sub-genre doesn’t spread much more than it has now. Hopefully it’ll stay out of other current Australian drama series, because the last thing we need right now is to discover that Dr Lucien Blake is actually the illegitimate lovechild of Miss Fisher and the dashing detective Jack Robinson. Because that would be silly. And we can’t have silly television now, can we?

And… 12 months later, I’m back online!

Yes, apologies. It has been over twelve months since I last posted something here, and in that time, I’ve experienced my second trip to Bali (Seminyak, naturally) and my first trip to Europe (London, Cardiff, Paris, Berlin, Rome and Venice). Work fortunes have fluctuated and yes, I have seen plenty of theatre, comedy, exhibitions and films – most of it good, some of it questionable, but that’s the way it goes, really. I’ll be seeing some Melbourne Cabaret Festival shows this week too, so more of that later this week. But in the meantime, here are some thoughts about television, in particular new Australian drama and classic Doctor Who.

We’re being spoilt for choice with new Australian drama on TV, especially on Sunday nights. ABC1, after treating us with the two-part miniseries Paper Giants: Magazine Wars last month, is now indulging us with The Time of Our Lives at 8.30pm, a new series from the creators of The Secret Life of Us, Judi McCrossin and Amanda Higgs, all those years ago. It’s new territory, but familiar ground for them; it’s wonderfully recognisably Melbourne, mostly around the bayside suburbs, and is about an extended family of siblings in their 30s, maybe a little older, and the hurdles they face in their domestic lives. That of course includes being left at the altar, infidelity, separations, ex-wives and children, and it certainly has a ring of truth about it.

claudia karvan

Claudia Karvan as Caroline ponders her parenting skills in The Time of Our Lives

There’s also some fine acting talent here: William McInness and Claudia Karvan as the central couple Matt and Caroline, struggling with a dead marriage and a son who is developmentally challenged. Karvan as the uptight, controlling mother who believes her son is ‘gifted’, and isn’t dealing with her husband’s departure, plays her with just enough detachment and obsession for us to be able to sit back and comment on her self-delusion, but adds enough vulnerability to truly elicit sympathy. McInnes has his spent and callous, if not selfish, character down pat. Justine Clarke is a delight as Bernadette, new partner to Shane Jacobson’s Luce and stepmother to his 11-year-old daughter, and Anita Hegh is perfect as his slightly bitter ex-wife. I get the feeling that Stephen Curry’s character, the unofficial adopted son to the family Herb, still has some development coming, and it seems we’ll be seeing more of Michael Dornan as the jilter of real adoptive daughter Chai Li (Michelle Vergara Moore).

a place to call home

The Bligh family in a Place to Call Home has its fair share of secrets…

There’s more family drama on Seven in the same timeslot but from a different era in A Place to Call Home. Set in 1953 on a wealthy country property just outside Sydney, it’s dealing with privilege, racism and homosexuality in post-war Australia, and while it’s unashamedly in soap opera territory, terrific performances from Marta Dusseldorp, Noni Hazlehurst Brett Climo, Craig Hall and David Berry make it great Sunday night viewing. Oh, and some hot topless masculinity in the shape of the gay farmer/object of desire doesn’t go astray either.

place to call home 1

Not quite topless, but gay farmer Harry still gets James Bligh excited…

 

Kane_Shot1_0111

Tim Campbell and Gyton Grantley as gay dads in House Husbands. Lucky Stella!

Just two channels away on Nine is House Husbands, a surprise hit for the network, especially since it features a gay couple very prominently in the mix. In many ways, House Husbands is very safe viewing, with its focus on more Melbourne domestic scenarios and popular names such as Gary Sweet. Julia Morris, Rhys Muldoon and Firass Dirani, and that’s why it’s both a surprise and a delight to see the gay couple Kane and Tom, played by Gyton Grantley and Tim Campbell (read my interview with Tim for Time Out Melbourne), as such an important part of the show without being tokenistic or stereotyped.

 

 

offspring - season 4

Patrick is worried that Nina’s Post-It notes are multiplying…

Wednesday nights is Offspring night again, and continues its slightly heightened treatment of its familial dramas to great effect. Witty, well-written and wonderfully performed, it’s encouraging to see Australian drama can do this sort of programme well. And I guess all of these shows have a debt to Packed to the Rafters, which is calling it a day. Maybe it should have pulled the plug about a year ago, but it’s still sad to see it finish.

I’ve also been celebrating Doctor Who‘s 50th anniversary by re-watching stories from its Classic days (1963-1989) in a random fashion. Covering all seven Doctors and all 26 seasons (The 1996 TV Movie will get its own one-off viewing soon), I’ve been selecting stories least watched and remembered, and that’s provided some very interesting viewing indeed. From the remastered Hartnell story, The Reign of Terror, now with animated missing episodes, to the unfortunately dull and earnest Colony in Space, Pertwee;s first trip in the TARDIS, the camp double-dealings of Tom Baker’s The Androids of Tara, and the slightly homoerotic Davison story, Planet of Fire.

doctor_who__planet_of_fire_beach

Turlough is exhausted after saving Peri from drowning. Well, that’s the ‘official’ story…

Homoerotic not just because Mark Strickson strips down to Speedos as Turlough rescues a drowning Peri (Nicola Bryant in a very brief bright pink bikini) off the coast of Lanzarote, and subsequently spends the rest of the story in short 80’s shorts, but because the not unattractive, for once, male natives of the planet Sarn run around in even shorter shorts and their leader Timanov, played by Peter Wyngarde, wears heavy eyeliner, and new companion Peri’s stepfather Howard’s first appearance is topless, in tight denim shorts and a fetching bandana around his neck (this is 1984, after all). Howard was played by Dallas Adams, who was 37 at the time, and is best known, it seems, for receiving the then-biggest palimony payout from his former boyfriend. He also died, apparently from AIDS, in 1991, aged 44.

dallas adams

Peri had no idea that her new stepfather was much more interested in hauling phallus-shaped artefacts out of the sea…

Eye candy aside, Planet of Fire isn’t a great story. It had a lot to do, what with introducing Peri as the new companion, writing out Turlough, while explaining his murky past, and getting rid of failed robot companion, Kamelion. Oh, it also killed off the Master – again; something of a habit in the 1980’s Master stories. But that’s no excuse for wooden acting, bad dialogue and that old ‘alien visitor worshipped as a god’ scenario.

Which, strangely enough, rears its head again in the story I’m watching now: The Trial of a Time Lord parts 1-4, also known as The Mysterious Planet. While the whole concept of an on-screen trial to mirror its off-screen troubles must have seemed like a good idea at the time, and there are some astute self-aware asides about censorship and screen violence, it does feel forced and very contrived as an umbrella for this 14-part, four-story 1986 season.

glitz and dibber

Glitz and Dibber didn’t understand why they were taken captive. No one told them their facial hair was offensive, clearly…

It’s also sad to remember that this is Robert Holmes’ last full story for Doctor Who – he died not long after writing this and before he finished the last episode of the season (that confused mess was penned by Pip and Jane Baker, desperately trying to pull everything together), and it’s not one of his best efforts. The galactic criminal duo Glitz and Dibber give the story some much-needed relief from the clunky robots and unmemorable supporting characters (apart from a dreadfully over-acting Joan Sims), and Colin Baker, who is trying way too hard. He is, I’m afraid, still my least favourite Doctor, and while it’s good to see he and Peri aren’t bickering as they were in their previous season, his brashness still grates.

Anyway, I’ll keep you updated with other developments and reviews soon. Or I’ll try to…

Television’s blurring reality and fantasy…

The Voice is done for 2012, and Karise Eden has won Nine’s hugely successful ratings bonanza. Well done, Karise, with a voice like that, you deserved to win, and I’m sure there’ll be no escaping it for at least the next three months.

Karise proved she had the biggest and best Voice this year.

That’s no a bad thing, necessarily; previous winners of TV talent shows have gone on to forge successful careers, but I have to say I am glad The Voice is finished. I watched a couple of the early episodes, in the heady chair-spinning audition days, but even the strong voices weren’t enough for me to commit to watch it religiously – I’m not even watching MasterChef as avidly as previous years. But for me, regardless of how The Voice was dressed up, and who the judges and mentors were, it was still another reality/talent show, pulling out the usual manipulative tricks and following the talent show formula.

There’s no shortage of these shows. Australia’s Got Talent is in semi-final stage and The X Factor‘s next season is being promoted already. No sign of a return for Australian Idol, of course. But stranger things are happening…

Johnny Ruffo shows he has more than the X Factor now…

It’s not just these talent reality shows that are saturating our TV screens: Seven’s Dancing With The Stars finished on the weekend, with Johnny Ruffo, himself a product of last year’s X Factor, taking the trophy home; The Block is still banging away, and MasterChef is also bubbling away. The Amazing Race Australia is also mid-stride, and (heaven forbid), the reinvented Big Brother, now on Nine and hosted by Sonia Kruger, is not far away.

MasterChef contestants wait patiently for ‘The Voice’ to finish, so they can start rating again…

These shows have dominated the television landscape for over ten years now, and reality TV has developed its own culture, formulas and screen language and grammar. That’s not always helpful; MasterChef is struggling to maintain its ratings this year, but the trouble is, everyone’s wised up to their tricks – the drawn-out announcements, the contestant backstories, the ‘cliffhanger’ ball of flame before an ad break, and the excessive recaps. Now that The Voice has finished, it may pick up some viewers, hungry to feed their reality TV appetites.

‘Offspring’s heightened reality is proving successful – much to Nina’s relief!

But, more interestingly – for me, at least – is what reality TV has done to TV drama. Take a look at the popular dramas du jour: Revenge, Downton Abbey, Offspring, Game of Thrones, True Blood, Doctor Who, even Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries; they’re either melodramas, sci-fi/fantasy, or ‘heightened’ dramas. And by ‘heightened’ drama, i mean shows like Offspring and Winners & Losers, which are set in a recognisable world with familiar character types and scenarios, but it’s an exaggerated version of reality seen through a different set of eyes.

It’s also interesting that a show like Revenge, which is so far removed from reality that it’s high camp and hugely entertaining, is one of the most popular dramas on TV right now. Likewise with Downton Abbey. Yes, it’s set in a familiar historical period, but again it’s so over-the-top, I can’t help but love it. No wonder then that Dallas is making a return to TV as well.

This ‘Revenge’ isn’t served cold – it’s steaming hot!

Then you have all the fantasy and sci-fi shows that are so popular, and it’s a new take on fantasy. Game of Thrones, popular on Pay TV, is a soapy political melodrama set in Lord of the Rings territory, and True Blood is also an edgy and adult drama populated with vampires and other supernatural beings. Similar are the UK shows, Being Human (and its US version) and Misfits, that create soap opera dramas for their mythical characters. Doctor Who, since its reboot in 2005, has a much more emotional connection with its audience, with recognisable characters thrust into alien cultures and other worlds, but still maintaining personal relationships.

Fangs for the ratings! ‘True Blood’ pulls them in.

The demand for these shows is as high as reality TV’s – just one look at my Facebook feed shows it’s dominated by people’s thoughts on who will win the reality show of the moment, or updates on freshly-downloaded episodes of True Blood or Doctor Who. And of course, Facebook and Twitter have changed the way we watch TV; it’s all interactive and immediate now.

So it appears we like our reality trimmed and edited and packaged into palatable chunks, and we like our fantasy infused with real people and identifiable scenarios, but we don’t want our drama ‘gritty’ or ‘real-life’ anymore. Maybe it’s because our day-to-day lives are gritty and real enough; now when we watch TV, we want to be entertained and transported into fantasy worlds, or we want to see other people’s dreams either dashed or become reality, because really, we all still to like dream, and escape…